Bite Me

Six weeks have passed since Colorado's new booze legislation took effect -- the give-a-little/take-a-little double whammy of decreased blood-alcohol levels for drunk-driving offenses (a .08 limit now, down from the somewhat more forgiving .10) and the legalization of take-away wine. Prior to July 1, diners constantly faced the Sophie's Choice of either drinking too much so that they could polish off that $60 bottle of Bordeaux they'd unwisely ordered with the dessert course -- which meant dodging prowl cars and trying to keep the Escalade between the lines on the way home -- or leaving the bottle unfinished, with all that good grape going straight down the drain (or into the gullet of a crafty busboy). This wasn't the kind of decision anyone wanted to make, and more to the point, restaurateurs felt the leftover-wine dilemma was driving down their by-the-bottle sales.

On the other side of the issue were state lawmakers, who'd considered lowering the blood-alcohol limit for years because doing so would release millions of federal dollars for much-needed highway repairs, and the restaurant lobby that felt the industry was already suffering quite enough, thank you very much, and the last thing anyone needed was to have sheriff's department DUI checkpoints set up outside every wine bar in town, arresting what few customers they had for the crime of having a couple swallows too many.

What we finally got was a rather elegant solution -- one that gave a little to both sides and minimized losses for everyone. In one fell swoop, House Bill 1021 lowered the legal BAC level and gave restaurateurs the right to let customers take home their half-full bottles, so that they could finish them once they were safely off the road and in their own living rooms, presumably. Folded into the bill were also provisions allowing for wine and liquor stores to do limited tastings on the premises (four one-ounce pours per customer, five hours a day, four days a week) and one unintended loophole that gives Coloradans the ability to buy wine on Sundays in flagrant disregard for this state's blue laws.

Because there's nothing in the new law that says how much of that bottle a customer has to drink before having it wrapped to go, you could conceivably walk into any restaurant open on Sunday, order a bottle, uncork it, recork it and walk out the door -- content in the knowledge that man has once again triumphed over bureaucracy. And not surprisingly, that's just what some people are doing.

"I think we've probably noticed it the most on Sundays," says Goose Sorenson, chef-owner (along with partner Brian Klinginsmith) of Solera. "People will come in, take one swallow and take the bottle to go." But he also says that twenty or so people have taken advantage of the new law on normal service nights, and that he's seeing a slow rise in people buying full bottles rather than halves or single glasses. And Solera, which adds a Wine Spectator Best of Award for Excellence to its curriculum vitae this month, is a particularly good spot for the wine-aware to do a little bar-room shopping, because the restaurant already has a ver de vin system -- one of those suck-o-matic wine resealers that vacuums all the oxygen out of a bottle, then recorks it for maximum shelf life.

Scott Wilkins, bar manager at Le Central, says the new law hasn't done much for his business. "I wouldn't say it's had a huge effect," he tells me. "But you know, here and there, we've had a few people taking advantage of it. I think the problem is that not a lot of people know about it yet, so we try to tell everyone when they come in." As for the new DUI law, Wilkins thinks "people are definitely drinking just as much as they used to."

Marco Colantonio at Mel's Restaurant and Bar only remembers a half-dozen bottles being taken out in the past two weeks; he, too, blames a lack of education. "People just don't know this is something they can do," he says. "It hasn't been talked about enough yet, but personally, I'm thrilled with the fact that I could walk into a place such as this, with a wonderful, esoteric wine list and a lot of bottles with very low markups, and maybe order a second bottle to take home with me at the end of a meal. And Sundays? That's really the most extraordinary thing."

So no more excuses, folks. Now you know: Anytime you want, anywhere you want, you can walk into a restaurant, order a bottle of wine, have a glass, and take the rest right out the door with you. There's nothing the cops can do, nothing the courts can do, and your only responsibility as a good consumer is not to crack that bottle open in the car. It's not going to take many bad apples to spoil this for everyone, so, as Sergeant Esterhaus says, let's be careful out there.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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